The late 19th Century was an astonishing time for invention – aside from recorded sound we have radio, electric lights, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, electric motors and of course motion pictures.
In Roundhay, Leeds, on 14th October 1888, French inventor Louis Le Prince made the first ever film. It’s less than three seconds long, but compared to the first attempts at sound recording, it’s astonishingly well-developed.
The clip features his son Adolphe Le Prince, his parents-in-Law Sarah and Joseph Whitley and a friend, Annie Hartley. Sarah Whitley died ten days after the scene was filmed. Le Prince also filmed traffic crossing a bridge in Leeds later that year.
Two years later Le Prince went mysteriously missing, and his contributions to film are therefore unclear, especially as Edison went to great efforts (including a court case) to claim the movie camera as his own invention.
In the 1888 US presidential election, Democratic Party incumbent Grover Cleveland wins the popular vote, but loses the Electoral College vote to Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison.
Elsewhere in the USA, Anne Sullivan begins teaching Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony organizes a Congress for Women’s Rights in Washington, D.C., George Eastman registers the trademark Kodak, and receives a patent for his camera which uses roll film, and in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the first Groundhog Day is observed.
In Germany, Gottlieb Daimler unveils his first automobile and Frederick III becomes German Emperor and King of Prussia.
The British Empire celebrates Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, marking the 50th year of her reign. Elsewhere in the UK, the Whitechapel murders take place, the first 6 Football League matches are played, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is founded.
In France, the construction of the iron structure of the Eiffel Tower starts in Paris, The French Riviera is hit by a large earthquake, killing around 2,000, and Vincent van Gogh cuts off the lower part of his own left ear in a brothel and is removed to the local hospital in Arles.
King Kalākaua of Hawai’i is forced by anti-monarchists to sign the ‘Bayonet Constitution’, stripping the Hawaiian monarchy of much of its authority as well as disfranchising most native Hawaiians, all Asians and the poor.
In Asia, the 1887 Yellow River flood in China kills between 900,000 and 2,000,000 people, and Laos and Cambodia are added to French Indochina.
Max Ritter von Müller, German World War I fighter ace (d. 1918)
Chico Marx, American comedian and actor (d. 1961)
Fatty Arbuckle, American actor (d. 1933)
Shoeless Joe Jackson, baseball player (d. 1951)
Marcel Duchamp, French-born artist (d. 1968)
Rupert Brooke, British war poet (d. 1915)
Erwin Schrödinger, Austrian physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1961)
Marcus Garvey, American publisher, entrepreneur, and Pan Africanist (d. 1940)
Le Corbusier, Swiss architect (d. 1965)
Chiang Kai-shek, 1st–5th President of the Republic of China (d. 1975)
L. S. Lowry, English painter (d. 1976)
Arnold Zweig, German writer (d. 1968)
Georgia O’Keeffe, American painter (d.1986)
Bernard Montgomery, World War II British commander (d. 1976)
Boris Karloff, English actor (d. 1969)
Conrad Hilton, American hotelier (d.1979)
Thomas Sopwith, English aviation pioneer and yachtsman (d. 1989)
Huddie William Ledbetter (Lead Belly), American folk and blues singer (d. 1949)
Otto Stern, German physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1969)
Anita Loos, American writer (d. 1981)
Irving Berlin, American composer (d. 1989)
Raymond Chandler, American-born novelist (d. 1959)
John Logie Baird, Scottish inventor (d. 1946)
T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt, writer, and academic (d. 1935)
T. S. Eliot, British (American-born) writer, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1965)
Henry A. Wallace, 33rd Vice President of the United States (d. 1965)
Eugene O’Neill, American writer, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1953)
Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., American politician (d. 1969)
Gustav Kirchhoff, German physicist (b. 1824)
Alexander Borodin, Russian composer (b. 1833)
Jenny Lind, Swedish soprano (b. 1820)
Doc Holliday, American gambler and gunfighter (b. 1851)
Emma Lazarus, American poet (b. 1859)
Edward Lear, British artist and writer (b. 1812)
Louisa May Alcott, American novelist (b. 1832)
Wilhelm I, German Emperor and King of Prussia (b. 1797)
Friedrich III, German Emperor and King of Prussia (b. 1831)
Paul Langerhans, German pathologist and biologist (b. 1847)
John Pemberton, American founder of Coca-Cola (b. 1831)
Carl Zeiss, optician and founder of company now known as Carl Zeiss AG (b. 1816)
The gramophone and phonograph had been experimental toys for a decade, their inventors deciding to tinker with them from time to time in between other, more immediately lucrative projects. In 1887, aside from Edison’s occasional developments, Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Labs had developed significant improvements in both cylinder and disc recording, and Emile Berliner filed his first patent for what he called a “gramophone” – though the invention he launched a few years later would bear little relation to the patent. Most importantly, on March 28th, a group of businessmen from Philadelphia created the American Graphophone Company, in order to produce and sell phonograph machines – this eventually evolved into Columbia Records.
It would be nice at this stage to cite these developments as the birth of the recording industry, but that’s still a couple of steps away. These inventions, whether using cylinders or discs, were merely private prototypes of dictation machines, intended for listening on a stethoscope-like device – interesting in a vague way, but needing a showman to get people excited. This came in the form of civil war veteran (and medal of honor recipient) Colonel George Gouraud, who was employed as Edison’s agent in Europe.
On 14 August 1888, Gouraud called a press conference to introduce the phonograph to London, including playing a piano and cornet recording of Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord“. Sullivan (of ‘Gilbert & Sullivan’ fame) was one of the luminaries invited to Gouraud’s residence in South London for dinner parties where the phonograph was introduced to the great and good of English society as a parlour trick par excellence. The guests would listen to phonograph recordings, then record their greetings to Edison, to be shipped back to the USA. And that dinner, for the most part, is our audio record of 1888.
Our mix, then, begins with a recording of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, made by the Edison company for a frankly terrifying talking doll in 1887. Then we move on to arguably the oldest extant musical recording, the duo performing “The Lost Chord”, and Gouraud introducing the after dinner speakers. After an interlude from a white wax cylinder marked as “Piano Solo by Miss Eyre” we have the guests taking their turns to speak; Postmaster General Cecil Raikes, Edmund Yates, Sir Arthur Sullivan and A.M. Broadley – followed by a somewhat inebriated final toast from Colonel Gouraud.
After the party we have a few other surviving recordings from 1888 – first an unnamed performance from Issler’s Parlor Orchestra, a quartet led by Edward Issler who acted as Edison’s in-house band for their first few years of operation. Then we have a brief section of whistling from a Mrs Shaw, and a first sample of Edison himself speaking. Here he is testing out his device by describing a trip he would like to take around the world, obviously ad-libbed as it would make little or no sense to anyone with a map of Europe to hand.
Next we have a fantastic piece of history, if not a great example of sound recording; Gouraud took his phonograph along to record a performance of a choir or thousands singing Handel’s ‘Israel in Egypt‘. Three of these cylinders survive, but this is the only part where the voices manage to come through the wall of white noise.The real thing must have been stunning, but hearing it now takes a bit of imagination.
Finally we have Gouraud’s recording of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone – a scratchy mess which unfortunately yields little in the way of comprehensible content. A recording of Queen Victoria, made around the same time, is apparently in existence, but is little more than a noise, and whether it is or is not actually Victoria speaking is still debated. This is not in the mix, but can be heard here.
1. Unknown – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
2. Unknown Performer & Miss Eyre – The Lost Chord
3. Colonel Gouraud – Introduction & Toast
4. Miss Eyre – Piano Solo
5. Colonel Gouraud – Introducing Messages To Edison
6. Postmaster General Cecil Raikes – Message To Edison
7. Edmund Yates – Message To Edison
8. Sir Arthur Sullivan – Message To Edison
9. A.M. Broadley – Message To Edison
10. Colonel Gouraud – Toast
11. Issler’s Parlor Orchestra – [Title Unknown]
12. Mrs Shaw – Whistling by Mrs Shaw
13. Thomas Edison – Around the World On The Phonograph
14. 4000 Voice Choir Conducted by August Manns – “Moses and the Children of Israel” from Handel’s “Israel In Egypt”
15. Willam Ewart Gladstone – The Phonograph Salutation
For the final segment of general Victorian-era background, here’s Ruth Goodman’s book, which is substantially more interesting and informative than the macro-histories of the empire. Of course, most of what we’re coming to was recorded on the other side of the Atlantic, so perhaps I could’ve found something a little more relevant – but plenty of time for that later.
An alternative history podcast rundown of the second half of Victoria’s reign, if one isn’t enough.
The follow-up to Victorian Farm seemed to be quite an obscure choice at first, but pharmacies turn out to offer more of a window onto Victorian life and society than even farms do, so there you go. Also, keeping Ruth Goodman on is a winning strategy.